Warning: This article contains some words and terms used in the past by non-Aboriginal people that would be considered inappropriate today.
In the 19th century, Aboriginal people in the Sydney region used rivers, creeks and waterways as places of refuge and survival after the devastation of colonisation. In the first decade of the British colony, waterways were also important in resistance warfare. From 1788 to 1810 there were numerous raids conducted in canoes, as well as attacks by Aboriginal warriors on British vessels. The role of nawi – the Sydney tied-bark canoe – in this conflict has been overlooked by historians.
‘Defending their canoes’
Canoes were important cultural property in Aboriginal Sydney in 1788. As the Europeans soon found out, nawi were in fact prized possessions. During March and April 1788, just weeks after the colonists had arrived, several beatings and spearings of straggling convicts outside the British encampment at Sydney Cove occurred. In May, the bodies of convicts William Okey and Samuel Davis were brought back to the settlement by Captain Campbell. They had been found ‘murdered by the natives in a shocking manner’, with Okey speared several times and his skull split open, according to Surgeon White, ‘so much that his brains easily found a passage through’.
Governor Arthur Phillip and his military officers believed that these violent and gruesome deaths ‘must have been provoked’ by the convicts. The suspicions of Judge Advocate David Collins were confirmed when inquiry was made and it appeared ‘these unfortunate men had, a few days previous … taken away and detained a canoe belonging to the natives’. Phillip suggested the warriors had acted ‘in their own defence, or in defending their canoes’.
The deaths of these two convicts, who had been collecting rushes for thatch, had long been assumed by historians to have been at present-day Rushcutters Bay, although several colonial journals record the location as ‘up the harbour’. Recently, historians have suggested this was likely to have been Darling Harbour. However, the museum’s new acquisition of The Log of H.M.S. Sirius 1787–1792 by William Bradley (see the museum’s Signals magazine number 123 page 60) includes a 1788 survey of Port Jackson which has not previously been published as it had been in a private collection. Importantly, the survey includes several place names around the harbour that do not appear in any subsequent maps, surveys or published journals. One such name is ‘Bloody Point’, located in Iron Cove, west of Leichhardt Bay, on a spit of land where the UTS (University of Technology Sydney) Rowers Club sits today. It is almost certain that this is the location of the campsite of Okey and Davis, where their mutilated bodies were found 1
‘We ware allow’d a musket in the boat’
While the colonists were quick to note how important canoes were to the Sydney people for use in fishing and travelling around the harbour, they also began to consider their utility in swift raids. In August 1788, Surgeon John White described how ‘a few days since the natives landed [from their canoes] near the hospital, where some goats belonging to the Supply were browsing, when they killed, with their spear, a kid, and carried it away’. Collins added that the raiding party had come ashore in five canoes, in which they escaped up the harbour with the freshly speared goat.
Again in September, canoes were used in an attempted raid. Several nawi landed ‘above 30 natives’ at Dawes Point, ‘it was supposed after some of the sheep there’. According to Collins, they were met by ‘two gentlemen’ and, ‘after throwing some stones, they took to their canoes and paddled off’. In early 1789, a coxswain was speared after he took a nawi.
The British response to ongoing attacks on the water and at the water’s edge was to carry more firearms in their boats. As Jacob Nagle, an American sailor on HMS Sirius, noted, ‘The natives ware now so troublesome that we ware allow’d a musket in the boat, as we were constantly up and down the harbor’.
Although nawi were often described as flimsy craft, several colonists noted how quickly the canoes could move through the water. Nawi were extremely versatile – swift and silent and easily landed anywhere, they were well suited to lightning raids and hasty retreats in the increasing guerrilla warfare campaign that was hemming the colonists inside their encampment, unable to go outside the ‘lines of limitation’ without firearms or an escort of soldiers.
In April 1789, however, the nature of the warfare in and around Sydney was irrevocably changed. Aboriginal people were decimated by the disease they called galgala –probably smallpox – which killed hundreds of people, and around half of all the warriors in the region 2.
Yet resistance warfare and conflict continued even after the smallpox devastation. Nawi were used to escape from punitive expeditions and roaming parties of armed Europeans. In December 1790, Lieutenant Watkin Tench’s expeditions to Botany Bay to punish the killers of two convicts were unsuccessful – not so much because they became stuck in the mud of the Cooks River up to their armpits, but because Aboriginal people escaped his soldiers by canoe. On the second expedition Tench conducted a well-planned campaign and feigned a march to the north, turning back to the south, and force-marching by moonlight. At the ‘nearest point of the north arm’ of Botany Bay, the soldiers saw a large group of Aboriginal people who promptly fled in three canoes that Tench described as ‘filled with Indians’.
In late 1790 the pressure on fish stocks in the harbour was great and Aboriginal
people used their nawi to bail up the colonists’ fishing boats. At one point, Bennelong – a noted warrior, and later good friend of Governor Phillip – joined the raids, and ‘at the head of several of his tribe’, robbed some people who were out fishing. He persuaded them to hand over their fish by the threat of ‘several spears in his canoe’.
By 1791, orders were issued that all boats should go out armed, and ‘the native people’ were forbidden from certain parts of the harbour. Then in June some convicts destroyed a nawi belonging to Balloderry that had been ‘left at some little distance from the settlement’. According to Collins, Balloderry’s ‘rage at finding his canoe destroyed was inconceivable, and he threatened to take his own revenge, and in his own way, upon all the white people’. Even after he witnessed the convicts found guilty of destroying the nawi being flogged as punishment, Balloderry wanted further justice, on his terms. A few weeks later, ‘when everyone thought he was sufficiently repaid for his misfortune’, a convict who had strayed from the settlement was suddenly struck in the back by a spear, then more spears fell around him and another wounded him in the side. He somehow managed to escape, but Balloderry had upheld his threat 3.
‘…paid for their rashness’
From 1792 conflict subsided in the Sydney and Parramatta districts, but by 1795, resistance warfare had broken out on the newly occupied areas of Darug and Darkinjung lands along the Hawkesbury River near present-day Windsor. The river proved to be of tactical importance, with several water-based raids and skirmishes.
In late 1795, ‘the natives at the river’ attacked a man ‘who had been allowed to ply with a passage-boat between the port of Sydney and the river, and wounded him (it was feared mortally) as he was going with his companion to the settlement.’ This was the second ambush attack of vessels along the river.
In late 1797, there were another two attacks on vessels – this time on the lower Hawkesbury River near Broken Bay. One vessel was apparently boarded by ‘a party of natives in canoes’ who killed the sailors and took the corn they were transporting. The second attack saw a group of Aboriginal people approach a vessel and, after offering friendly greetings, being invited on board.
They then attempted to seize the sailors’ weapons and a struggle ensued. They were overcome, but as Collins described it, ‘not before some of these unexpected pirates had paid for their rashness with their lives’. Governor Hunter was forced to send military detachments with vessels going back and forth from The Green Hills (Windsor) to Sydney along the Hawkesbury River. At the same time (in late October or early November), when a boat that went missing on the Hawkesbury was discovered in the possession of some Aboriginal people, the assumption was that they had killed the crew.
As the settlers moved to take up land for farming on the rivers and creeks of the Cumberland Plain, Aboriginal people used the waterways to conduct raids on the farms, forcing many settlers on the river to abandon their properties. Another period of intense conflict began in 1804. At the Georges River and at Lane Cove, several raids were conducted by warriors who used nawi to approach the farms and carry off crops and supplies. In August that year at the Georges River a settler, according to the Sydney Gazette newspaper, was talking to a group of Aboriginal men while ‘in the very interim a body of their colleagues were busily employed in clearing a whole acre of corn, which they carried off either in canoes or on their shoulders’.
Although sporadic and opportunistic (the hallmarks of guerrilla warfare), the attacks on European vessels along the Hawkesbury were at times fierce. In April 1805 there were several incidents at Broken Bay. Two men employed as salt boilers on Dangar Island had all their clothing and supplies taken at spear point and were forced to march naked back to Sydney, a distance of some 60 kilometres. At Pittwater, a group of canoes approached the William and Mary, and demanded to be allowed on board. The vessel’s owner, William Miller, replied, according to the Gazette, ‘by pointing his musket constantly at [the lead warrior] only, and declaring his determination to kill the first that should dare to venture nearer’.
This was followed by an attempt on the Richmond, when a ‘small boat was decoyed into a small inlet by an old native who called himself Grewin’. According to the Gazette, ‘a powerful banditti then shewed themselves’, and fortunately for the boat’s crew, the Richmond appeared. When Grewin asked if it carried any guns, and was told that it did, they left the ship’s boat alone.
In June, ‘A Settler’ wrote to the Sydney Gazette bemoaning the plundering of crops along the Hawkesbury River. A government order had been issued in April that required all boats along the river to be ‘secured with a lock and chain, and the oars to be taken out’. The writer suggested the ‘propriety of discouraging as much as possible the use of bark canoes, which can only be effectually accomplished by destroying every such vehicle upon the river, unless occupied by or known to belong to the natives themselves’.
It seems (as was the case in many instances of cultural exchange in colonial Australia) that many settlers on the river had learnt the value of the light, swift and stealthy nawi and were using them to steal crops and stock at night. The writer noted how bark canoes were ‘peculiarly adapted to the purposes of silent travel’ and he attributed the disappearance of his crops and poultry to their utility 4.
An ‘implacable spirit’
In September 1805, a bold attack was launched on the Hawkesbury River. Chief Constable, land owner and businessman Andrew Thompson (convicted in 1790 of stealing, but by this time the richest man in the colony) operated a small fleet of vessels from the Green Hills, trading and transporting goods and people. One of his vessels, the Hawkesbury, was at Mangrove Point. The crew were resting below decks when the vessel’s master, Pendergrass, heard a whisper on deck. According to the Gazette newspaper report of the incident, ‘he started suddenly and looking up the hatchway, beheld several natives with spears, the foremost of whom, Woglomigh, seized hold of him, and the old man gaining the deck, maintained a struggle unheard by any of his companions’.
Pendergrass was wounded in the hand by a spear destined for his breast. At this point a crewman rushed up on deck with a pistol and shot Woglomigh through the head, ending the fray as the other warriors then leapt overboard and swam for shore. Among them was Branch Jack – according to the Gazette, ‘the leader and chief’ of the Hawkesbury warriors. The rest of the crew came up on deck and began shooting at the swimming Branch Jack, who apparently ducked several times but was ‘mortally wounded in the head’.
The Gazette applauded the death of Woglomigh, whom it called ‘one of the most noxious and rancorous pests of that part of the river Hawkesbury’, and warned its readers that without firearms the crew’s resistance to being overpowered by this ‘impetuous and daring tribe’ might have been futile. The brazen attack on the vessel ended with the death of two important leaders of the Hawkesbury warriors, Branch Jack and Woglomigh.
Even without their leaders, the Gazette bemoaned how ‘the implacable spirit of the Branch natives suffers no opportunity of mischief to escape’. They made an attack on the vessel Resource ‘with a shower of stones, thrown under the cover of brushwood’. The stones were reported as ‘weighty’ and their ‘velocity excessive’; the boat’s crew was taken unawares, and ‘the vessel almost met with ‘disagreeable consequences’ 5.
Colonial documentation of the use of nawi in warfare in the early years of the colony
is limited, but shows it was indeed a factor in Aboriginal raids, attacks and resistance warfare. In the 19th century, Aboriginal people in the Sydney region used rivers, creeks and waterways as places of refuge and survival after the devastation of colonisation. In his study of inland New South Wales and Victorian waterways, Fred Cahir has noted how Aboriginal people used their watercraft to assist Europeans in myriad ways, such as ferrying travellers across rivers, rescuing people in floods, and carting goods and stock. Further research into the use of watercraft and waterways by Aboriginal people during the rest of the more than 100 years of frontier warfare may add to the growing broader understanding and awareness of the various ways people resisted the colonisation of their country 6.
– Dr Stephen Gapps, Curator
This article is based on research from Dr Stephen Gapps’s new book The Sydney Wars – Conflict in the early colony 1788–1817 (NewSouth Books, Sydney, ISBN 9781742232140).
On June 22 and 23 the museum will hold The Archaeology of War, a two-day conference exploring the importance of archaeology in the investigation of past conflicts, how this has been affected by technological advances and what role archaeology might play in public remembrance. The conference includes a panel session on Frontier Wars archaeology.
This article originally appeared in Signals 123 (June 2018). Uncover more maritime history and stories in our quarterly magazine Signals, which is now available for iPad via the App Store.
1 ‘Port Jackson New South Wales’ in The Log of H.M.S. Sirius by W. Bradley ANMM Collection; Turbet, The First Frontier, 30
2 White Journal 30 May, 26 August 1788, p. 165; Collins Account pp 24, 32, 34, 40, 43; Bradley Journal, pp 120, 126; Phillip to Sydney 9 July 1788 HRNSW I, II, 148 Nagle Journal 104-5
3 Tench A Complete Account, 208-210; Collins Account 118, 121, 137-9; Cobly Sydney’s First Four Years, 1789-90, 310, 318; Hunter, An Historical Journal, 331, 353; Tench A Complete Account 215, 239
4 Collins Account 30, 41, 378; Barkley-Jack Hawkesbury Settlement, 296-7; ‘Distribution of New South Wales Corps’ 8 January 1802, HRNSW IV, 675; HRA 1, V, 18; Peter Turbet The First Frontier, 146; Sydney Gazette 10 June, 19 August 1804, 28 April, 5 May 1805
5 Gazette 8, 15 September, 22 December 1805; HRNSW I, V, 311, 741.
6 See Heather Goodall and Alison Cadzow Rivers of Resilience: Aboriginal People on Sydney’s Georges River, (2009); Paul Irish Hidden in Plain View – The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney, (2017); Stephen Gapps Cabrogal to Fairfield (2010). These authors have noted the continued presence of Aboriginal camps along the Georges River, Prospect Creek and other areas of Sydney right through the late 19th century and even up to the 1950s.